Time to get on board

By CHRISTOPHER JONES Globe and Mail, July 8, 2003.

High-speed train travel is a good start, but Canada needs to totally rethink the way we move people and freight from place to place, says railway advocate Christopher Jones.

The news that construction of a high-speed rail link between Quebec City and Windsor could begin this fall is promising for Canada. It comes on the heels of a spirited debate among federal Liberal leadership candidates about how to carve up the proceeds of the federal excise tax on fuel. Both of these issues have important implications for the sustainability of our current surface transportation system.

Transport Minister David Collenette announced yesterday that the $3 billion high-speed rail proposal he committed to last fall will go to cabinet later this month. That proposal is the realization of a 1991 Quebec-Ontario study that argued that investment in high-speed rail travel would ultimately be less expensive than spending on new highways and airports.

Twelve years later, conditions are even more conducive to high-speed rail. The prohibitive costs associated with the earlier electrified French-style version of high-speed rail are off the table; congestion in the Quebec City-Windsor trade corridor is costing Canadians an estimated $3.3 billion annually; air travel has become less attractive since September 11, and governments have become more conscious of the fiscal costs associated with ever greater car use and highway fatigue.

The latest version of high-speed rail travel would see the possible introduction of a Canadian-built higher speed train -- the Bombardier Jet Train -- powered by a diesel-feul turbine capable of 240 km/h or 150 mph.

The environmental case for this rail link, especially in view of our Kyoto Accord commitments, is impressive. Assuming that Canadians can be lured from their cars and aircraft at near the same rate as their European and American counterparts, the latest numbers suggest greenhouse gas emissions for intercity passenger travel between Montreal and Toronto will be reduced by 12 per cent from current levels. Overall, assuming certain load factors on these trains, it will be possible to save 350-million litres of fuel annually by 2012.

The investment to upgrade rail infrastructure in this corridor of 14.5 million residents (and possibly in Calgary-Edmonton in the future) would benefit both passenger and freight rail and would permit Canada to keep pace with many of our G-7 counterparts who have embarked upon high-speed rail modernization.

As cabinet members weigh the pros and cons of higher speed rail, the Liberal leadership contenders have begun to speculate aloud on the fate of the federal excise tax on fuel. However, lost in the midst of the tussle about which level of government should get what share of the $4.7-billion in annual federal revenues from this tax, is the question of what the real public purposes of this levy should be.

The issue of provincial/municipal equity in allocating these revenues is valid enough, but surely the more meaningful question is how should these funds be deployed to lessen our reliance on an increasingly unsustainable system of transporting people and freight?

Debating the use of asphalt-destined dollars is hardly the ideal point of departure for framing a national transportation policy for a new century. It is time to ask ourselves some questions about the direction of current transportation policy.

Is expanding car ownership and use -- forecast to be 50 to 60 per cent higher in 2015 than in 2000 -- and the attendant requirement to build new roads and widen existing ones, intrinsically a good thing? Is it realistic for people to continue treating parking and gas as the only marginal costs associated with their daily commute? Can provincial and municipal policies that encourage low-density residential development and commercial sprawl be regarded as wise public stewardship when the inevitable result is rampant single-occupant vehicle commuting and heavy commercial truck use? Is a posture of simple indifference an appropriate response by government to evidence of the pernicious environmental and health consequences of road transport's chronic noise, smog, accidents or the destruction of arable land and green space? How are we to regard studies that conclude that children who live near high-traffic areas may be six times more likely to develop childhood leukemia and other cancers?

A modern transportation policy begs answers to these questions. While the responses are hinted at in Mr. Collenette's new federal vision for transportation, much work remains to be done. The traditional roads-first transportation policy, formulated in the 1950s, has run its course for Canada.

To take the example of the excise tax on gasoline and diesel fuel, consider how we might re-shape it to deal with the negative outcomes that are a function of business-as-usual in surface transport. Now, the federal taxation of fuels serves as little more than a crude cash cow to underwrite the status quo, with demonstrably little benefit to anyone. A revised policy might be used to lever some publicly desirable outcomes including reduced congestion, diminished emissions, curtailed road accidents, fatalities and injuries, and preserved green space, to name just a few.

To see how this might work, consider this new model:

The pooling into one joint fund of all federal and provincial excise taxes on gasoline and diesel fuels, including taxes on railway diesel fuel.

The addition to this fund of revenues from legislated road-user fees including charges for heavy-load commercial trucks and congestion charges for commuters.

The further addition to the fund of all provincial/territorial vehicle registration taxes, license charges and fees.

This new transportation fund could be administered by representatives from all levels of government. Dollars would be allocated to four sub-funds: a primary highway/railway fund; an urban transport fund; a secondary road/short line railway fund, and a municipal street authority fund.

Spending in each area would have to achieve agreed-upon public interest goals such as improved traffic flow, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and better air quality, the requirement to support strategic trade corridors of national significance, the preservation of land, the diminution of noise, the contribution to improved children's health and safety, or any other legitimate public objectives.

Reforming the fuel tax in this manner would enable other modes of transportation, such as freight rail, which pay excise taxes to federal and provincial governments but have historically received few benefits, to be eligible for investment spending. Overall, the objective would be to move away from a road-centric bias often driven by electoral considerations, federal-provincial squabbling over fuel tax revenues and the costs of highway repair, and a marked apathy to mounting evidence of the corrosive impacts of business-as-usual in surface transport.

It's time Canada developed a more sophisticated and modern surface transportation policy, one that acknowledges the benefits of high-speed rail, and also strives to use existing measures such as the gas tax, and new ones such as road pricing, in more innovative and sustainable ways.

Christopher Jones is director of government relations of the Railway Association of Canada.


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